Explainer: What you should know about the U.S. abandonment of the Kurds

October 11, 2019

Earlier this week President Trump announced that he was withdrawing all U.S. forces from northern Syria and handing control to the Turkish government, the sworn enemy of the Kurds, allies of the U.S. who have been fighting Islamic terrorists in the region.

Many experts believe Turkey is more concerned about fighting the Kurds than in fighting ISIS and securing the tens of thousands of ISIS prisoners and their families being held by Syrian Kurds. On Wednesday, the Turkish military launched a ground and air assault on American-allied Kurdish forces in northeastern Syria.

Who are the Kurds?

The Kurds are the fourth largest ethnic group in the Middle East—behind the Arabs, Turks, and Persians—and the largest in the area to not have their own permanent nation-state (though they control a semi-autonomous area of northern Iraq). There are between 25 and 35 million Kurds living in a mountainous region that covers the borders of Turkey, Iraq, Syria, Iran, and Armenia.

Various Kurdish groups are embroiled in several conflicts in the region: against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, against the Assad regime in Syria, and against the government of Turkey.

Where exactly is Turkey, and why is it significant?

Turkey is on a peninsula in Western Asia that serves as a crossroads between the continents of Europe and Asia. Turkey is bordered by eight countries: Georgia to the northeast and Bulgaria to the Northwest; Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic on the east; Syria and Iraq to the south; and Greece to the west. The Black Sea is to the north, the Mediterranean Sea to the south, and the Aegean Sea to the west.

Turkey is a member of NATO and has the second largest standing army in that treaty organization (the U.S. has the first). The U.S. has an airbase in Incirlik, Turkey with approximately 5,000 service members. This base has been a primary point of operations for the U.S. airstrikes against ISIS.

Who is ISIS?

ISIS (also known as Islamic State) is an Islamic terrorist group that was established in Iraq in 2004 and pledged allegiance to “Al-Qaeda in Iraq.” They later broke away from Al-Qaeda because of differences in doctrine and objectives and formed a distinct organization. In 2012 and 2013 they expanded into Syria, and called themselves the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). (Most Western media translate “Levant” as “Syria,” hence ISIS.) Since 2014, they have expanded their ambitions to be a global organization and today simply refer to themselves as Islamic State.

The stated long-term goal of Islamic State is to establish a “caliphate” to rule over the entire Muslim world, under a single leader and in line with Sharia (Islamic law). A caliphate is a form of Islamic government led by a caliph, a person considered a political and religious successor to the Islamic prophet, Muhammad.

What have the Kurds done to oppose ISIS?

ISIS began attacking the Kurdish people in Syria in 2013. In response, Kurdish fighters backed by the U.S. launched an effort to repel ISIS from various parts of the region. Since then the Kurds have retaken tens of thousands of square miles of territory in north-eastern Syria and established control over a large stretch of the border with Turkey. They have also captured large numbers of ISIS fighters and have them detained in prison camps in the region. To date the Kurds have reportedly lost 11,000 soldiers in the war against ISIS.

Why is Turkey attacking the Kurds?

For the past hundred years the Turkish government has abused and marginalized its Kurdish citizens. Turkey also considers the Kurds who have been fighting ISIS in Syria to be an offshoot of terrorist group attempting to create a separate state within Turkey.

Why should Christians be concerned about the changes in the region?

As ERLC President Russell Moore said on Twitter, “Kurdish Christians (and others among the brave Kurds) have stood up for the United States and for freedom and human dignity against ISIS terrorism and the bloodthirsty Assad regime. What they are now facing from Erdogan’s authoritarian Turkey is horrifying beyond words.”

Additionally, as Sen. Lindsay Graham tweeted on Wednesday, the abandonment of our Kurdish allies “ensures the reemergence of ISIS.” And as the U.S. State Department highlighted in a 2017 report on international religious freedom, ISIS remains one of the world’s most significant threats to religious freedom.

The State Department pointed out that in areas under ISIS control, the terrorist group committed individual and mass killings, and engaged in rape, kidnapping, random detentions and mass abductions, torture, abduction, and forced conversion of non-Muslim male children, as well as the enslavement and sex trafficking of women and girls from minority religious communities.

ISIS has committed crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing directed at these same groups, and in some cases against Sunni Muslims, Kurds, and other minorities, including attacks on Christian pilgrims and churches in Egypt.